Monday, November 22, 2010

The Message of Packaging

Should cigarette packets be more boring? Three predictably contrasting views in today's news [Source: BBC News 21 November 2010].

  • UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said "glitzy designs on packets" attracted children to smoking and it made sense to look at "less attractive packaging".
  • Martin Dockrell, director of policy and research at Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), suggested that cigarette packets are designed to fulfil certain purposes. "They use it to seduce our kids and mislead smokers into the false belief that a cigarette in a blue pack is somehow less deadly than a cigarette in a red one." Mr Dockrell claims that the tobacco industry calls packaging "the silent salesman".
  • Simon Clark, director of Forest, a lobbying group that opposes smoking bans, said: "There is no evidence that plain packaging will have any influence whatsoever on smoking rates." Mr Clark described the Health Secretary's move as a "cheap publicity stunt". 

I'm wondering whether there is some kind of moral equivalence implied here between "glitzy packaging" and "cheap publicity stunts".

I'm also wondering about the nature of evidence. The tobacco industry is clearly willing to spend considerable amounts of money on certain things, including attractive packaging, and maybe this willingness constitutes indirect evidence that these things are indeed effective in producing outcomes beneficial to the tobacco industry. This is akin to a kind of existential POSIWID - "here's some mechanism, we can't demonstrate exactly what it does or how it works, but it would be unlikely to exist if it didn't do something useful for the entity that is responsible for its existence".

People attempt to use similar arguments in the biological sciences, to explain certain biological or psychological characteristics, as if these existed solely because of some supposed evolutionary advantage, but this class of argument is methodologically flawed because it grossly over-simplifies the way evolution works.

However, existential arguments may be a little more plausible where human agency is involved. If people and organizations are willing to invest in some costly or controversial mechanism, we may at least infer the existence of a belief that this mechanism will do something useful, even if this belief turns out to be unfounded. (After all, mediaeval Christians were willing to invest in all sorts of ways of getting into Heaven, which most modern Christians no longer credit. And George Bush jr was willing to sanction various mechanisms for obtaining information about terrorist threats, even though many experts regard information obtained by such mechanisms as highly unreliable.)

But existential arguments alone can't tell us what the purpose actually is. The tobacco industry presumably has the objective of selling more cigarettes, but it may also have the objective of reducing regulation by influencing public opinion. Sponsoring sports and culture may once have contributed significantly to the second objective, and perhaps respectable and responsible packaging will help here as well.

Perhaps the Health Secretary genuinely believes (or has been advised) that changing the packaging would reduce the lure of smoking to young people. Or perhaps he merely feels the need to make some kind of anti-smoking gesture, even if he doesn't really think it will make much difference. Because his action is consistent with both sincere belief and political cynicism, we cannot infer either belief or cynicism from his action alone.

Similarly, the fact that Forest objects to the Health Secretary's move might indicate a belief (fear) that it might work, or merely a cynical seizing of a publicity opportunity. Actually, if I were a spokesman for Forest, I should probably want to argue that the Health Secretary's move was irrelevant, because smokers were all sensible grown-ups who weren't influenced by glitzy packaging in the first place. I should also take the opportunity to mildly reprove the tobacco industry for wasting its money on vulgar advertising, just to emphasize in the public mind that I wasn't merely a paid spokesman for the tobacco industry. Forest's defence of glitzy packaging looks suspiciously like protecting the interests of the tobacco industry rather than the official purpose of Forest, speaking up for the freedoms of smokers.

Meanwhile, the people who design cigarette packaging clearly understand that the meaning is not as simple as the politicians and lobbyists (on both sides) pretend to believe. See for example Catherine R Langan, Intertextuality in Advertisements for Silk Cut Cigarettes April 1998.

1 comment:

Scribe said...

On the one hand, surely everyone knows that kids take up smoking a) because everyone else does it, and b) because adults don't want you to do it.

On the other hand, it'd be great if this opens up debate on the whole "colour coding of status" thing. Pale colours on food packaging do NOT mean something is healthier. Monochrome car colours do NOT mean you are posh and glitzy (although mine is silver). etc etc.

Ultimately, they should make cigarette packets a lovely yellow-and-lilac tartan pattern, and label them "Nice Cigarettes" in Comic Sans. No-one under the age of 60 would buy them.